On Religion: Are Southern Baptists Facing Another 1979 Civil War? |

Once upon a time, Southern Baptists in Bible Belt communities knew how to talk to people who weren’t going to church.

“We were dealing with people who were, for the most part, like us,” said Baptist historian Nathan Finn, provost of the University of North Greenville, located in the South Carolina hills near the US border. North Carolina. “Everyone understood sweet tea, fried chicken and SEC football. It was easier to tell these people about Jesus.

Things have changed as the greater Greenville-Spartanburg area has welcomed waves of high-tech companies and industries with global brands such as BMW, Bosch, Fluor, Hitachi and many more. Today’s newcomers speak German or Japanese.

“It’s not black and white Southerners,” Finn said. “We are past that. The Sunbelt has gone global and we are more urban. We don’t know how to talk to new people. The cultural gaps are greater. … Southern Baptists are better at handling these kinds of problems in foreign missions than in our own communities.

Finn has been studying this and other trends for years, which led him to write a series of articles in 2009 for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary titled “Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC Since 1979.”

Anyone familiar with the history of the Southern Baptist Convention gets this reference from 1979. That’s when activists supporting “biblical inerrancy” attacked the establishment leaders of America’s largest Protestant flock. , while supporting causes favored by the rise of the religious right. Electing one SBC president after another during the 1980s, this “conservative resurgence” helped change the face of evangelicalism.

There are signs that a Second Baptist Civil War may be coming. A key moment came on March 1, when SBC Chairman Ed Litton of Alabama said he would not seek — as has become the norm — to run for a second term. Last June, he narrowly beat a pastor from the Conservative Baptist Network, a new coalition that insists SBC leaders have become “too wide awake” on critical race theory, the role of women, COVID-19 policies and other fault lines in American life.

Finn is convinced that Southern Baptists are struggling this time around how to respond to rapid cultural change, as opposed to the theological wrangling of the past.

“Is it ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’ 2.0? I think this dog does not hunt, ”he said, reached by telephone. “We are not even within crying distance of the biblical issues that were at stake in 1979. … I think we are facing a microcosm of the divisions that we see in America, in general.”

At the same time, Finn said some themes from his old “15 Factors” essays remain relevant. For example, in 1979 most SBC churches remained united by a kind of “brand loyalty” when it came to managing worship, youth work, education, publishing, and evangelism. . This produced what some have called an “SBC ethnicity”.

Today, those ties have weakened as more and more Americans, including Southern Baptists, flock to independent, nondenominational mega-churches and para-church ministries that blur the lines between Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatic Pentecostals and others.

“A lot of these churches are post-Baptist,” Finn noted. “If you visit them, you will find that their leaders have graduated from SBC schools, but have moved on.”

Then there was this passage from 2009: “Sociologists and historians note that during the 20th century, the South slowly became part of America again. … It took the civil rights era to complete the process,” Finn wrote. “White Southerners willingly changed their minds about race relations, were ashamed to change their minds, or at least reluctantly submitted to the new status quo. … The South became the Sunbelt and Southerners became Americans – in many cases the most patriotic of Americans.

Today, many growing SBC churches are black, Latino, Asian or multicultural, with leaders who are theologically conservative but have different approaches when it comes to addressing burning issues – such as racism. institutionalized – in a tense America.

In another change from 1979, these crucial debates are taking place on Twitter and Facebook and other balkanized digital forums in which success is judged by the clicks of true believers.

“These days, we don’t speak to Southern Baptists with other views until we get to the national convention, and then we find out how divided we are,” Finn said. “Cable news channels and concrete information silos on the Internet are totally part of this.”

(Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)

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